Saturday, January 31, 2015

31 Days Later

A month ago, Ima Kate and I were driving from Sacramento to Berkeley with two excited girls in the back seat. All the things they owned fit in the trunk of the Honda Civic that was now driving them toward a new life. Kate and I had expected sadness and fear in the face of this huge transition, but the girls were exuberant in the backseat. A few tears of joy escaped from my eyes, as I kept repeating in disbelief, “I’m a parent. I’m a parent. I’m a parent”

The first few weeks felt surreal. I spent more time asking myself “Am I parent?” than feeling confident in our relationship. Quickly, we grew to know and trust one another and today I can confidently say, “I am a parent.”  It’s pretty cool being part of the parents’ club.

I feel like I should write something glamorous to mark the passing of time, a retrospective of what was and what is, but I don’t know what to write. So much has changed in a month, but so much has also stayed the same. Tantrums have been managed, grief has been cried out, trust has been established, and love has been reinforced. The girls have remained wonderful through it all.

Before they came home, the social workers asked us how things were going during our pre-placement visits. I always responded positively – the kids were great, we were lucky to be matched with them. Everyone said it was a honeymoon stage, that it’s still a honeymoon stage.

People have said that about me and Kate for years. That we’d stop being so codependent and want some alone time, that we’d grow apart, at least a little. It’s been five years, and we’re the same; I think it’ll be the same with the girls.

Maybe it’s because of how we define “great.” We’re awed by their resilience, their capacity to love, and their amazing ability to explain their emotions. It’s not to say there aren’t trying times, or times when they’re being a typical annoying child. We’re saying that even when they’re acting their worst, their hearts are huge, they love us lots, and they try their best. That’s all we could ever want from them.

Having children is the best adventure I’ve ever taken. On the first day home, I wrote on Facebook:
Welcome home, Estella and Serenity. Today's car ride home, the proverbial ride home from the birth, equaled the joy of my wedding, and it was hard to hold back my tears of joy as your giggles filled our car. The evening's temper tantrums were the drum beat to my joy, as my heart celebrated, "I'm a parent. I'm a parent. I'm a parent." Today is one of the best days of my life. Welcome home.

I still feel that way, only now, I’m more exhausted. I’m so glad you’re home, E and S, and I can’t believe how lucky we were to have found such amazing kids. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but (as we say in our house), it must be a G-d thing, because it sure wasn’t anything we could have planned out. Thank you, World, for granting us such amazing gifts. I'm so happy I get to go on this adventure with such amazing people.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"To live will be an awfully big adventure"

“Do you want to go on an adventure?” I asked the girls over breakfast.  I was yearning to go outside and enjoy some Bay Area “winter” weather – 70 degrees and perfect.  I was dreaming of Golden Gate Park, the ocean, or Tilden.  Anywhere outside. 

“What’s an adventure?” S asked.  E and S are smart kids, but their vocabulary needs work.  It doesn’t help that Kate and I both have a large vocabulary that is used often.  While beneficial to the girls, it means that we slow down our conversations, trying to explain simple words that are big concepts (such as exist, direct, adventure).  I am particularly untalented in this area.

“It means … uh… Ima?” I responded.  I am really terrible at this thesaurus game. 

“It means doing something new and exciting,” Kate replied.  Thank G-d for Kate and her brain’s built-in kid-friendly thesaurus.  I think my brain only got the Scrabble edition. 

The kids weren’t swayed by the adventure idea until I mentioned a park.  “Does the park have swings?” they asked.  When you’re young, any new playground is an adventure.  Nature is just something your parents make you play in.  

An hour later we drove up to Cordenices Park.  The tall cement slide built into the oak-covered hill immediately grabbed their attention, and they didn’t touch the swings for the next two hours we were there.  Their excited feet rapidly ascended the stone steps as hands tightly grasped the cardboard they would soon sit on to make them go faster down the slide.  E went down first, joyfully yelling as the cement turned one way and then the other, until her body slowly stopped as the cement flattened out.  S quickly followed, just as gleeful as her sister, and soon the two were back up the stairs so they could slide down again.

For an hour they went up and down, up and down.  After a quick snack to refuel, we went on a nature walk around the area.  We crossed bridges, touched water, and hopped from rock to rock across a stream.  We climbed poles and hillsides, laughing and learning, trusting that our next footfall would be secure, our next moment a joyful one.

The time went by quickly, and soon it was after one – way past lunchtime.  I told the kids it was time to go, and they whined.  And that was it.  There was no crying, there was no stomping, and there was no pouting and staying behind.  They whined that they wanted to stay here, they didn’t want lunch, and then asked if they could go down the slide again. 

Last week, it would not have been that easy.  Last week, we could have planned only one adventure, not five.  We would have made it to the park, and then gone home, with at least one child crying for no reason other than her heart was heavy.  But today, we started at the park, went out to lunch, walked to Games of Berkeley, went out to dessert, played at U.C. Berkeley, and THEN came home, where we laughed and joked, learned to ride bikes, had dinner, played a game, read books, had baths, and went to bed. 

There’s a sense of finality, of family.  This is our family unit, four people who didn’t know each other four months ago, but now we’re together forever, through thick and thin.

The girls have called us Kate and Margee since they met us.  When we told them that we wanted them to move in, we said we wanted to be their mommies, reintroducing ourselves as “Ima Kate” and “Mama Margee.”  The reintroduction proved important in terms of what roles we played, but the names “Margee” and “Kate” had already stuck.

“Congratulations, Mama!” our friends would say after meeting the girls.  Such a thing always made me sad, reminding me that I was “Margee” – not mama – to the girls.  It reminded me of their pain and reverberated my fear that when they called out for “Mommy” it wasn’t me they were asking for. 

This Shabbat it was only the four of us.  After our plates were clean, I suddenly told the girls I had a question for them.  Normally confident and well-spoken, my inability to make eye contact and stammering words must have been a strong cue that this meant a lot to me.  I stumbled through the question I didn’t know I was going to ask: Would you call me Mama and call Kate Ima?  

The girls said yes, and – true to their word – have tried very hard to call us by our mommy names.  Every time they call me “mama” my heart trumpets in happiness, and I think the girls can hear its blasts. 

The girls loved the park and can’t wait to go back.  They love their new bikes, and can’t wait to ride them again.  They loved the new game, and can’t wait to play it.  They loved their adventure today, and I’m sure they’ll love their adventure tomorrow, too.  Every day is an adventure now, as we get to do new and exciting things, as a new and extremely silly and loving family. 

As Peter Pan says, “To live will be an awfully big adventure.”  It sure is, Peter.  It sure is. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Shabbat Shalom

The challah in the oven envelops the house with its smell.  The house is clean, the sun is setting.  It is time for Shabbat.  The girls come out of their room in their fancy dresses and we pick out our head coverings for the evening. 

They unknowingly invoke our families as we cover our heads.  E loves the kippah I wore for my bat mitzvah, a beautiful beaded and wire art piece bought for me by my grandmother.  S’s black and rhinestone hat looks like it was from the forties, a gift to me from Kate’s grandmother.  My own head covering is a headband; Ima Kate’s is her typical kippah.

As guests arrive – we try to always have guests for Shabbat – I take the food off the stove and we get ready for Shabbat to begin.  We gather, exhale, and begin to light the candles.  I wave in the Shabbat flame and close my eyes.  Each word brings me a step farther from my week, a step closer to the magic of Shabbat.  I open my eyes and find that Shabbat’s song has brought me my heart’s desires, a family and community to celebrate these moments.

We place our hands upon our children’s heads as we bless them. 
May G-d bless you as G-d blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. May G-d bless you and keep you.May G-d cause G-d’s spirit to shine upon you
and be gracious unto you.May G-d turn G-d’s spirit unto you and grant you peace.
We say it in English so they can understand our blessing.  The first time I placed my hand upon their heads, my tears came before I got to the second line.  I silently say these words to myself in shul during the silent Amidah.  They’re meaningful to me, and its an overwhelming privilege to share these old blessings with my own children.

For most of my life I have been preparing for these moments.  Growing up, every Friday we shared a beautiful Shabbat meal.  The fancy china and wine glasses were gently carried from the cabinet and placed lovingly on the tablecloth.  The lights were dimmed and candles lit, often with explanations to our friends and family who joined our table. 

After lighting the candles, I open my eyes to this new Shabbat day.  Little hands that rolled matzo balls and kneaded challah now giggle as we place our loving hands upon them.  Soon, we’ll teach them Shabbat songs and games, then the aleph bet, then their Torah parsha, then…  There is so much to teach.

Instilling in them a love of Shabbat and a love of one another brings me great joy and pride as a parent.  The learning moments are accumulating so fast.  They have been with us for three weeks, and already it feels like we’re a real family, I’m a real parent.  At night, we say the shema together, and they are beginning to learn the Hebrew alphabet and food blessings.  They feel comfortable with us, to yell at us and love us, ask us questions and pretend they know the answers.  Homework struggles continue, but their joy of reading is boundless.  They’re great kids, ready to tackle the work of the world… tomorrow, because tonight is Shabbat.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Grief and Family

This is the year of the baby. Four of my friends have given birth to healthy children, each a celebrated bundle of joy, a miracle of life, something that people coo over as I try to find a three year old to play with.

Almost all of the babies came after years of trying, years of an emotional rollercoaster that wears you down. One of the celebrated babies is a sibling to a child they’ll never meet, a brother who died during birth. Another baby is a miracle that came after thousands of dollars of fertility treatments. Our babies – not babies any more – came after hundreds of pages of forms and hours of phone calls and interviews.

Kate tried to get pregnant for a year. She wanted her body to perform the magic of creation, developing a human being from almost nothing. She wanted to feel the growth of her stomach as she nourished her body, nourishing a new soul. There was no reason for the lack of pregnancy – her only fertility issue being lesbianism – but it just didn’t happen. One could say that she didn’t get pregnant so that two years later E and S would come into our lives, but to say that would also imply that my friend’s baby died just so her new little girl could come to be in their lives. I cannot believe in that sort of G-d, that sort of cruel pre-destiny. Sometimes things just happen, and that’s all you can say about them.

Today, someone died on BART. As we past Powell station, I saw the stretcher waiting to accept the lifeless body, police guarding death in a way they can’t guard life. I worry that the BART patron’s death will expose his family, ignoring their grief in favor of explosive headlines and gossip-ridden paragraphs. I cannot imagine the horror of losing your child, made greater by trying to combat misleading and uninformed headlines.

Grief is intertwined with pregnancy and adoption for so many. Miscarriages, stillbirths, infertility. For those of us who chose adoption (Kate and I always knew we wanted to adopt), we accept into our home children who must grieve for a biological family that could not fulfill their needs. One hopes to never grieve for the death of your child too. 

In times of grief, it's best to be with others. Their presence helps guide us to comfort, or at least a semblance of comfort. Sometimes we feel powerless facing another person's grief, but our mere presence, our love, is what can help sustain the traumatized mourners. At least, I hope that's true, as I help S and E navigate their loss. I hope to never have to confront what it feels like to lose a child. I do not think I am strong enough to bear that burden, and in awe of those parents who are able to continue life after their child's death.

May the BART patron’s family find blessing in his/her memory, and may we all come together to help each other during times of grief.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Parenting children who lost their parents

After two weeks together as a family, the days are getting harder. The daily routine grinds against our family as we try to find enough time for homework, bath time, dinner, and reading. Each daily task is prolonged by tantrums, fights with sisters, and the emotional turmoil associated with the loss of your biological family. It’s exhausting.

It’s also rewarding. Their hearts are full of loss, surely, but are also full of love. Their resilience is awe-inspiring, and their giggles are magical.

There was a particularly hard day this weekend, as the girls each emotionally confronted the loss of their mommy and daddy. I cried in the face of their devastation, repeating the only three things I could think of: I’m so sorry; I’m here for you now; I love you.

Later that night, they were too giddy to go to sleep. The conversation of loss transformed into a conversation of gain, as Ima Kate introduced the idea of their eventual adoption. I had written our last name on one of E’s things earlier in the evening, and they wanted to know if they would share our last name some day. They were thrilled when they learned that their last names would likely change and that they would be adopted by us in the next year. Another moment of loss, another moment of celebration. The girls celebrated with excited laughter, and fifteen minutes after bedtime Ima had to remind them to at least pretend to be asleep.

The next day was met with the typical tantrums and squabbles of two emotionally drained second graders, not yet versed in adequate language to express their feelings. They look over the feelings chart we printed in anticipation of these moments, but they’re clueless to most of the nuances of feelings. Right now they can articulate only two things: “My heart hurts” and “I can’t listen right now.” This is great progress in twelve days, more progress than most adults can make in such a short time. I’m amazed by them, by their great capacity for love during these hard transitions, and their excitement and openness to being part of our family.